Police Commissioner Andrew Coster rejects accusations he made comparison between terrorism and Māori youth

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has rejected accusations an opinion piece he penned for the New Zealand Herald made a comparison between terrorism and Māori youth, saying it was not his intention to conflate the two.

The column, published by the Herald last week, has been slated as an insincere attempt to deflect criticism aimed at police and their data gathering strategies. 

In his opening line, Coster mused: "Is it just me, or are we having trouble making up our minds about what we want?" He then noted that police had recently faced backlash for both "failing to undertake routine intelligence collection" and "undertaking routine intelligence collection".

"In fairness, the criticism spoke to two different issues: the alleged failure to scan for threats related to the bomb threat made against the Christchurch mosques, and the alleged inappropriate collection related to police interactions with young people," he wrote.

The first refers to recent backlash regarding the alleged failure to search for bomb threats. Police only learned of threats against mosques on the anonymous website 4chan after they were tipped off by a member of the public

Police have also faced criticism after reports emerged of authorities photographing young people, particularly rangatahi, and collecting and storing their personal details in a national database. However, the force has denied racially profiling Māori and Pacific youth.

Coster called for a balanced debate on the subject of intelligence collection, including appropriate boundaries and the trade-offs the community is willing to make in the interests of safety.

"To be able to prevent crime and harm, police need access to information. Information enables us to understand potential offenders' movements, associations and activities," he wrote.

"However, there is a downside. To gather this kind of information, Police need to speak to people, and we need to view content online."

Yet the column has been met with a lukewarm reception, with Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman claiming Coster should have apologised in the fallout of the revelations.

"I think if anything, a Herald column by our top cop the week of revelations should have come with an apology and an acknowledgement of wrong," she said.

Appearing on The Hui on Monday, host Mihingarangi Forbes questioned Coster as to why he had made a comparison between scanning for bomb threats and taking photographs of innocent Māori youth.

It follows criticism from criminologist Emily Rākete, who said in response to the column: "Brown children waiting outside a dairy without their parents are not the same things as Nazis."

Forbes also argued the Commissioner had drawn an offensive parallel. 

"Where in our history can you pinpoint single act of terrorism performed by a Māori youth?" she asked. "It sends a message you're comparing the two."

Coster reiterated that he was attempting to make a point about the role of  information gathering in both examples.

"It was not my intention to conflate the two things. The point I was making is [that] people reasonably expect us to keep the community safe and so we have to find ways to do that - that are fair to all people," he said.

"As I also said in that article, there's no place for taking photographs of young people in breach of our policy… I don't for a moment defend taking photographs of young people when there's no reason to. It's against our policy and if it's happened, we'll deal with it."

Forbes pressed that Coster's opinion piece had said intelligence collection enables authorities to "join the dots in the way the community expects us to do when crimes are being planned or committed".

"Can you understand how those families, both the Muslim community and Māori whānau, would be deeply offended by that connection? You said it's about 'joining the dots', so what dots are you joining between terrorism and Māori youth?"

"I'm not drawing a connection between those two things. My focus there is on how police gather the information we need to keep our communities safe," Coster reiterated. "Sometimes it is appropriate to speak to young people... in relation to crimes that our community expects us to deal with.

"I'm looking for balance in the way we talk about these issues," he added. "There are trade-offs. The community expects us to keep people safe." 

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: Getty Images

The controversy follows the launch of a new independent research project to identify unfair policies and processes within the force.

Police announced that the research, overseen by an independent panel, will focus on fairness and equity - a topic of scrutiny following the investigation that revealed the allegations of police photographing rangatahi.

By speaking to both communities and officers, Coster said the project will work to establish if there is bias within the police force, particularly in regards to who officers stop and speak to, the way force is used, and prosecution.

Inquiries by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) and the Privacy Commissioner are currently underway in relation to the reports of young people being photographed by authorities.

"I completely understand the concerns in the community. That's why we want an objective lens that looks across all of our interactions," Coster said.